The Environmental Legacy of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, 1920-2019
John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion granting environmental agencies the power to regulate greenhouse gases, died Tuesday at the age of 99. His decision gave the U.S. government important legal tools for fighting the climate crisis.
"Justice John Paul Stevens was one of the great environmental heroes of the last century," Washington Gov. and climate-focused presidential candidate Jay Inslee wrote in a statement following his death. "His decisions formed the bedrock of America's environmental laws, and his impact on our environment will be felt for generations to come."
Justice John Paul Stevens was one of the great environmental heroes of the last century. His decisions formed the b… https://t.co/q3oE7UcJl4— Jay Inslee (@Jay Inslee)1563333437.0
Stevens was appointed to the court by President Gerald Ford in 1975 and retired in 2010 at the age of 90, having served more than twice the average amount of time for a Supreme Court Justice, the Associated Press reported. He was characterized as moving from the center to the liberal wing of the court during his tenure, but Stevens himself thought that was inaccurate. In his view, the court had moved to the right while his positions had stayed roughly the same.
"I don't think of myself as a liberal at all," Stevens told The New York Times in 2007, as the Associated Press reported. "I think as part of my general politics, I'm pretty darn conservative."
However, Stevens did rule in favor of a number of positions considered liberal, including gay rights, abortion rights and gun control, according to Reuters. He also opposed key Bush administration policies. For example, he wrote the court's decision that detainees at Guantanamo Bay could challenge their incarceration in U.S. courts.
Another disagreement with the Bush administration marked perhaps the cornerstone of his environmental legacy. In Massachusetts v. EPA, he wrote the majority opinion arguing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had the authority to regulate auto emissions that contribute to climate change, The New York Times reported at the time. Further, he ruled that, if the agency chose not to regulate greenhouse gases, it would have to justify its decision with science.
The Bush administration has argued that the EPA lacked the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act and that, even if it had the power, the Bush EPA would not choose to use it. Stevens disagreed.
"Because greenhouse gases fit well within the Act's capacious definition of 'air pollutant,' EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases from new motor vehicles," Stevens wrote.
His decision paved the way for key Obama-era policies, such as the first auto-emissions standards focused on limiting climate-changing emissions, Grist wrote in a reflection on his retirement in 2010.
Manhattan v. EPA wasn't his only significant environmental decision. Grist highlighted three others:
- Chevron v. NRDC: This 1984 decision was initially seen as a defeat for environmentalists because it said the DC Circuit could not override the Reagan EPA's decision to give more flexibility to companies in honoring their Clean Air Act obligations. However, it set an important precedent that the courts should defer to regulatory agencies when they act on a reasonable interpretation of a law.
- Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter Of Communities For A Great Oregon: In this 1995 case, Stevens reinstated the portion of the Endangered Species Act that protected the habitats of endangered species. It had been struck down based on a narrow interpretation by the DC Circuit, but Stevens argued that the intent of the law was clearly on the side of protecting habitats.
- Sierra Preservation Council v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: In this case, decided in 2002, Stevens wrote the majority opinion that upheld land use protections for Lake Tahoe. His ruling reversed the court's abuse of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to block environmental laws.
"Justice Stevens should be remembered as a great justice in environmental cases, not because he bent the law to favor environmental outcomes, but rather because he insisted that the law itself, which dictates environmental outcomes in many cases, be followed," Grist concluded.
Stevens died in a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida following complications from a stroke he suffered on Monday, according to a Supreme Court statement reported by Reuters. He was remembered fondly by his former colleagues.
"He brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence. His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the statement.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline Fight Could Go to the Supreme Court https://t.co/PyjtlKV3vr— Lakota Country Times (@Lakota_Timez) March 2, 2019
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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